Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
After taking on the Badgers at home, the Wildcats will spend Thanksgiving weekend in East Lansing to face their second crossover opponent of the season — the Michigan State Spartans. With a new head coach and only 46 percent of the team returning, Michigan State is in the midst of a rebuild, and the Wildcats will look to take advantage of their transition year to come out Spartan Stadium with a late-November win.
Returning Production: 46 percent (Offense 43 percent, Defense 49 percent)
2019 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big Ten)
Coach: Mel Tucker (First year!)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 42nd
2019 S&P+ Offense: 91st
2019 S&P+ Defense: 13th
Michigan State was a middle-of-the-road team in the Big Ten last year, which is to say, they were pretty good. They started the season ranked No. 18 and began a three game, nonconference stretch with two solid wins over Tulsa and Western Michigan. They then dropped their final nonconference game to Arizona State by a score of 10-7 and dropped out of the rankings as a result.
The Spartans rebounded with a 31-10 win over Northwestern, disappointing all the first-year students attending their first football game in Evanston before beating Indiana on a last minute touchdown drive, which the Spartans then capped with a safety on the desperation lateral Indiana tried on the final play. Going into October, the Spartans were sitting at 4-1 and ranked No. 25 in the AP poll.
However, October was Michigan State’s downfall with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State as their opponents for the month — each team sitting comfortably within the top 15. The Spartans were outscored 100-17 across the three-game stretch, fell out of the rankings and never climbed back in. Entering November shaken, Michigan State then played Illinois. For the first two quarters, it looked like the Spartans would cruise to an easy victory. However, they fell into the most dangerous trap in football — leading a game 28-3. The Spartans promptly let the Illini put together a fourth quarter comeback, and MSU lost 37-34. Then they headed to Ann Arbor and lost to Michigan in the same fashion as the October games.
After a five game slide, the Spartans pulled themselves together, shutout Rutgers in Piscataway and beat Maryland at home to close the season with a 6-6 record. They outplayed Wake Forest to win the Pinstripe Bowl, and with that, their season came to a close.
A couple months later in February, 13-year head coach Mark Dantonio retired, leaving many questions for the Spartans entering 2020.
Michigan State is a young team with a new coaching staff this year, and their biggest question is seeing who steps up to lead. Three-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke departed after last season. Redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi has the most experience and is arguably the favorite to take over the role, but redshirt sophomore Theo Day and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne are also in the mix. Head coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Joe Johnson have both stated all three are getting equal reps, and they haven’t committed to anyone.
The two most productive wide receivers from 2019, Cody White and Darrell Stewart, Jr., also left, so Jayden Reed, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Western Michigan, remains as the Spartans top replacement at wide receiver. But it’s not all bad news for Michigan State’s offense — running back Elijah Collins returns for his redshirt sophomore season and was just 12 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards last season. This team will be learning and building week-by-week, but their inexperience could still hurt.
The Spartans defense will also face a tough rebuild. Last season they allowed an average 22.5 points per game, were a top-20 defense in S&P+ but lost eight starters in the offseason. However, they did retain some leaders. According to Pro Football Focus, defensive end Jacub Panasiuk is the highest graded returning pass rusher in the Big Ten. Senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons is poised for an All-Big Ten season and looks to lead the team in tackles. Defensive tackle Naquan Jones has been effective too and will start in the season opener for the first time.
The secondary lost three of the four starters with strong safety Xavier Henderson being the only returner from the group. While many of the other defensive backs have some experience under their belt, only time will tell if they can step up to be consistent contributors and make the big plays. There will definitely be growing pains for the Spartans on defense, and the major question is whether they can adapt to the challenges that come their way by the time Northwestern makes the trip to East Lansing.
Three Players to Know
Elijah Collins, RB
Elijah Collins is set to have a significant role on the Spartans offense again this year. One of the few aspects of the offense that returns almost in full is the offensive line, and effective run blocking will be key for a team that could have quarterback troubles. Collins should be able to benefit from the line’s experience and is on track for another 1,000-yard season. Collins will be one of the greatest threats to the Wildcats success on Thanksgiving weekend.
Jacub Panasiuk, DE
After initially opting out of the season when the Big Ten announced they would attempt to play in spring, senior and two-year starter Panasiuk decided he would ultimately return to East Lansing for a final season and play in the fall. Panasiuk finished 2019 with five sacks and 34 tackles across all 13 games and is MSU’s active leader in tackles for loss (18.5 for a total of 90 yards). For Northwestern’s now Rashawn Slater-less offensive line, pocket protection could be a challenge, and against a rusher as effective as Panasiuk, that could mean trouble.
Jayden Reed, WR
Redshirt sophomore transfer Jayden Reed was impressive at Western Michigan. As a true freshman, he caught 56 balls for 797 yards and eight touchdowns, was named the MAC freshman All-American and returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown. Reed was required to sit out last year due to NCAA eligibility rules for transfer students, so it remains to be seen how he’ll stack up in the Big Ten. If Reed doesn’t shine, however, it may not be his fault — with uncertainty in the quarterback room, the receiver corps could suffer as a result as well.
Northwestern football begins its season under the lights at Ryan Field on October 24. To stay updated on all of our football coverage, subscribe to the Inside NUsletter, delivered to your inboxes every Friday. Next week we’ll roll out a comprehensive season preview issue featuring all of our preseason content, game week coverage, features, exclusive articles and guest predictions. Every week thereafter it’ll prepare you for Saturday’s game and more. It’s your one-stop shop for everything Wildcat football.